‘Breaking Bad’: The Best Scenes in the Series, According to Science Adviser Dr. Donna Nelson

Showbiz Cheat Sheet had the privilege of speaking over the phone with Dr. Donna Nelson, the science adviser for Breaking Bad. At its core, Breaking Bad was a show about a teacher, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), who started to cook meth to afford his cancer treatments. But really, the show was creator Vince Gilligan’s way of celebrating science. 

Dr. Nelson shared what it was like working with Gilligan and her favorite Breaking Bad moments where the science became the star. 

Jesse and Walter making meth in their lab in Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad | AMC

Vince Gilligan is a science nerd 

The Emmy-award winning producer may have studied film at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, but he’s a science nerd deep down. 

“Vince loves science,” Dr. Nelson told Showbiz Cheat Sheet. She believes Gilligan was a “science groupie” when he was younger. “That’s what made him very interested and want to have the science content accurate.” For Dr. Nelson, having accurate science incorporated throughout Breaking Bad is part of what made it such a great show.

To make the science in Breaking Bad accurate, Gilligan called upon Dr. Nelson frequently for guidance. It was a joy for her to work on the series, mostly because she had the opportunity to inform the public and get them to appreciate science more. 

Dr. Donna Nelson helped make ‘Breaking Bad’ factually accurate 

As a science adviser, Dr. Nelson helped Gilligan and his team adjust scripts and sets so that the science made sense. Dr. Nelson’s job was to provide feedback on the scripts while also respecting the artistry in making a show like Breaking Bad

I had a lot of respect for [the writers],” she said. “I am smart enough about the writing for television that I know there will be a certain cadence and there will be alliteration — a certain style of writing.” 

To stay true to the writer’s style, Dr. Nelson took a “minimalistic attitude” when editing scripts. Thanks to the help of Dr. Nelson, Breaking Bad celebrated science and made it the star of the show. 

One of Dr. Nelson’s favorite episodes is ‘The Power of Thermite’ 

In season 1, episode 7, Walter and Jesse needed to procure a substantial amount of methylamine. Any other crook might have tried to pick the lock or break it with traditional tools, but Walter White wasn’t your average criminal. 

He was a scientist. So, he did what any decent scientist would do. He used “The Power of Thermite.” 

“They put the thermite on the handle and they ignite it,” Dr. Nelson regaled.

Remember what the scene looks like? Everything is dark, and Walt and Jesse are all dressed in black, so when the thermite ignites, all you see are the sparks flying across the screen and it completely obscures everything else.

You can’t see Walt.

You can’t see Jesse.

All you can see the thermite.

This is just one example of moments in Breaking Bad where Dr. Nelson believes “the science just takes over the screen [and] outshines the actors.”

Without science, ‘Breaking Bad’ is nothing

Dr. Nelson’s purpose in working on Breaking Bad was to shine a positive light on scientists. 

“[In] my opinion, the public does not appreciate science or scientists enough,” Dr. Nelson said. “So, I started thinking about different ways to get that idea across [in working with Vince Gilligan].” 

She felt that point was made in season 4’s “Box Cutter” when Walter educated Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) on why he needed him to run his business. 

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“[Walter] says things like, ‘Without us, you’ll have no one to make your product,'” Dr. Nelson said.”Without us, you’ll have nothing.’ When I read that dialog, I made a few changes, [but] it made me feel great because I felt like I finally got [the value of science] across to the writers.” 

When Walter said “Without us, you’ll have nothing,” Dr. Nelson felt she had done her job and stressed the importance of science to Breaking Bad fans everywhere.